This is the year of the process. Scarcely a major news story appears without some mention of a process, be it peace process, shutdown process, cleanup process, budget process, verification process, intelligence process, election process or regulatory process.
Process is preeminently a government word, derived from the jargon of social science and used as a kind of bureaucratic shorthand to describe indescribable complexity. By calling something a process, politicians and civil servant confer dignity on highly ritualized acts of paper shuffling. If something were in fact called a paper shuffle, it would lack sonority.
In Feburary, before the Three Mile Island accident, Nuclear Regulatory Commission Chairman Joseph M. Hendrie said that the regulatory process for licensing nuclear power plants was "prudent and conservative" and only a "relatively few" and "significant" changes were required. More recently, as gasoline prices have risen, Rep. John Dingell (D-Mich.) asserted that an overpricing "remedial process" was needed.
The objection to "process" is that in almost every case its usage is redundant. Historians may one day trace the corruption in official prose from the Peace of 1919 to the Peace Process of 1979. The question is not just one of grammatical purity. Use of such a word seems to me to mask the realities of very intractable public problems by suggesting that problems are easily amenable to solution.
As used in government, process is the means to an end. Ends are not called ends however but are known as outcomes or, sometimes, products. Products, such as the final report of a research project, and even called portable products. In reality, s ince almost no one reads them, portable products are icons, signifying that a process has been complete. This is important because it is thought to show that the bureaucrafts have done their job. They have participated in adecision-making process, a planning process a budget process a rule-making or funding porcess and, marvellous to relate, have produced an outcome for the policy-making and legislative processes. They have thus spent federal tax dollars wisely and well, especially if the outcome was subject to an evaluation process, of which a peer-review process was perhaps part. An evaluation is the pulling up of a process by the roots to see how well it's doing.
The elegant secret of process, besides the patronage created by its performance and administration, is that negates individual responsibility and promotes a collective, hence faceless, responsibility for decisions and policies. Officials are never wrong, although a process can be. It goes without saying that the more sophisticated the process, the more mystifying its substance to layman. If something can be full understood by only a handful of government experts, the jobs and budgets of civil servants are that much safer. One suspects that the SALT II negotiating process must have been very baroque indeed.
Process also connotes progress and therefore has a nice public-relations ring to it. Unhappily, the speed of a process is usually somewhat glacial and its ends, like peace, elusive. This helps breed cynicism in government and about government. As official language more and more contains empty verbosity, the distance between government and the citizen lengthens.
The distance between administrators and middle-echelon government workers also grows. A popular aphorism heard in the back rooms of the Department of Health, Education and Welfare is, "This process is the reality." Another saying, "Process is our most important product." This is a statement of breathtaking, almost Voltairian symmetry: The means is the end.